The initial reaction of the space fraternity to the successful return of the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon for re-use was cautious owing to the past failure to do so twice. When SpaceX owner and billionaire Elan Musk tweeted "Welcome back, Baby", it reverberated all over the social media with aplomb.
Despite bitten twice with failure, undaunted SpaceX continued to experiment with re-usable rocket returning to the Earth and landing safely and successfully on the ocean platform, specially built for the purpose. With the launch on December 21 at 8:29 PM EST, 2015 SpaceX achieved what it had lost twice in the past.
More so, it did not loose the mission value as its Falcon 9 lofted off 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites. The updated Falcon 9 V1.1 features super-cooled liquid oxygen propellant, an additional 1.2 meters of height, and the use of full-thrust Merlin engines, which have enabled the return capabilities of the Falcon 9 first stage to its launch site.
Historic since this is the first time that the complete first stage of an orbital rocket was successfully flown back to the launch site and landed intact. "This is a game-changing event," said Dale Skran, NSS (National Space Society) Executive Vice President. "Never before has the entire first stage of an orbital rocket been returned to its launch site for potential re-use."
This could be the beginning of re-used first stages which can significantly lower launch costs for the true age of practical space commerce, he said. The entire mission cost SpaceX $60 million. With the propellant for each launch costing around $200,000, the potential cost reduction over the long term is probably in excess of a factor of 100, said Musk.
Compared to recent achievement by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to send a sub-orbital booster to the Karman line (the edge of space) and return to its launch site for potential re-use, SpaceX has gone a mile ahead achieving the return of its first stage from much higher altitudes and faster speeds.
Bezos’s initial response was: "Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!" He later downplaed its significance saying, "The rarest of beasts – a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy."
Musk responded saying: "It is, however, important to clear up the difference between ‘space’ and ‘orbit’." While Bwezos was trolled on Twitter for his remarks, the event soon gained the recognition by the world and congratulations began pouring in at Musk for the achievement of his firm SpaceX.
"Competition is the key to rapid progress in space," patted Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President. "NSS has strongly supported competition in both the NASA Commercial Re-supply Services program and the Commercial Crew program. Today’s success is a direct result of the competitive, commercial nature of these efforts."
"NSS congratulates SpaceX on this incredible achievement," said Mark Hopkins, NSS Chairman. "It took enormous courage and confidence to continue forward with rapid technical innovation following a loss of mission incident. The effect of this event, both long and short term, promises to be world-altering. We can now see the NSS vision for our future in space coming ever closer to becoming reality."
Congratulations apart, Musk, the billionaire is strong with his sight not merely on toursim but landing on Mars and returning to the Earth one day. The historic feat by SpaceX lays a critical foundation for reusable rockets that could help humans colonize Mars, reiterated Elon Musk.
“This is a critical step towards establishing a city on Mars,” he told reporters after the event. “Without (reusable rockets), it would be unaffordable. It dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible, it’s what all this is about.”
Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and PayPal while Jeff Bezos is founder of Amazon and Blue Origin. Both tech giants want their SpaceX and Blue Origin, respectively, to turn into future space exploration companies.
Musk’s plan is test a heavy lift rocket that would make spaceflight more economical and he had once said that he would prefer to die on Mars and preferably not on impact. He has long cherished the idea of sending humans to Mars and now that the heavy lifting technology is proven, his next step would be to explore nitty gritties of inter-planetary travel.
SpaceX Timeline of Space Journey
Sept. 3, 2002: SpaceX Founded by billionaire Elon Musk, riding on the success of Paypal.
Mar 24 2006: Falcon 1’s first launch, unsuccessful
Mar 20, 2007: Falcon 1’s second launch
Aug 3, 2008: Falcon 1’s third launch
Sep 4, 2008: Falcon 1’s fourth launch, successful
Jul 14, 2009: Falcon 1’s 5th launch, successful
May 21, 2010: Dragon and Falcon9 first launch
Jun 5, 2010: Falcon 9’s first launch
Apr 16, 2011: NASA retires space shuttle program
Oct. 7, 2012: SpaceX sends its first unmanned capsule with supplies to the International Space Station as part of dozen such commercial cargo flights under a contract with NASA.
Dec 17, 2012: SpaceX’s Grasshopper test flight conducted.
Jun 15, 2013: 1st reusable rocket used, unsuccessful
Sep 6, 2014: Falcon Heavies 1st launch
Sep 6 2015: Falcon Heavy 2nd launch, unsuccessful
Dec.21, 2015: Falcon 9 First Stage Returns to Launch Site Successfully.